The Creativity Interviews: Filmmaker, Michael Maren

As part of my ongoing quest to explore what it means to live a creative life, I periodically invite kickass creatives to come play with us on Zebra Sounds. First, I ask them five questions about creativity, and then they get to ask you something…

… and that’s when the real fun (and wild generosity) begins.

Today’s episode…

Creative liberation, bad sitcoms, a short history of decay… and another GREAT giveaway!

Michael Maren is a journalist, screenwriter, and former aid worker who has written for The Village Voice, Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ and The New York Times, but none of those are where I found him. I found him on Twitter, tweeting about writing and directing his first feature film, A Short History of DecayHe’s partially funding the project through Indiegogo, and here is his one-sentence description of the movie (and why I contributed, and why I’m excited to see the film get made).

“A dark comedy about stepping up when your parents are going downhill; a love letter to everyone caring for someone who raised them.”

So of course I pounced on him in that way that I do, asking if he’d do the creativity questions with me,  and I was just exhausting persuasive enough for him to say yes. His answers surprised, inspired and challenged me. They also made me laugh out loud… which are all the things I think his movie will do.


j: Life is demanding. What are your tricks for getting into a creative space?

Michael: I simply rent a creative space, a little office in Washington Depot CT, where I can do anything I want. There’s a freedom to having a completely dedicated workspace, the sole purpose of which is to create. (Yes, I know you’re talking about creative space in the abstract, but I’m getting to that.)  That space is a no-failure zone, where a day spent reading, or watching a violent blood-soaked movie is just as successful as a day where I complete 5 pages of a new script. Everything that happens in that space is, de facto, part of my creative life. This is, of course, a flimsy conceit, but to reach a level of self-delusion where you really believe it is completely liberating; it opens you up to all levels of experience. There’s no such thing as a distraction or waste of time, because  I’ve defined it out of existence.

j: What’s the weirdest thing that inspires you?

Michael: Pathetically bad sitcoms.  I watch them and start wondering about who wrote them and if they knew how they got that bad. It takes me outside the experience of the show and into the deep labyrinth of creativity and ambition where writers live and die. There’s nothing harder than being genuinely funny.   Watching people fail at it is often funnier than what they’re creating. Nobody sets out to create shit. Imagining how it happens is inspiring.  You can get the same thing from a really bad novel, but it only takes 30 minutes to watch a TV show and it’s much less toxic.

j: How do you deal with critics?

Michael: I welcome criticism, so long as it’s not personal, which is to say that I enjoy good criticism.  Art is about reaching people and demanding a reaction from them. I’d rather someone hate what I did than be entirely unaffected by it.  I once ran into a critic who had trashed my book. I sat down beside him, and he became comically uncomfortable. Then, he opened his briefcase where he actually had a copy of the review he wrote. He took a pen, and using circles and arrows, he showed my how I could construct a positive blurb from his critical words. I thanked him and told him that I had enough good press from the New York Times and other places and therefore wasn’t that desperate for praise.

j: What energizes you, solitude or engagement?

Michael: Engagement. I started my career as a correspondent in Africa, in Uganda during the last days of Idi Amin, and I spent many years in Somalia.  I’ve always been attracted to conflict, violent or otherwise.  It keeps me involved and on my toes, keeps my senses sharp.   For a short time I tried to be a reporter in the U.S. It was the worst year of my professional life. I didn’t know how to work on a story during the day and go home and live my own separate life at night.  As a foreign correspondent, I lived and breathed every story I was working on for every moment of every day. I still get inspiration for characters and situations in screenplays from engagement with the world.

j: A strobe light, a typewriter, a tether ball, and rolls and rolls of duct tape. What will you make?

Michael: I’m much better at taking things apart than putting them together.  I don’t like playing games. But what comes to mind, is duct-taping Dick Cheney to a chair, turning out the lights and circling his head with a strobe-lit tether ball until he confesses to starting the Iraq war as a personal retirement plan.  I’d use the typewriter to write a stage play about it and to annoy him with the clacking of the keys.  (I love old typewriters.) (I’ll probably be investigated for writing this. Oh, well.).


I totally forgot to ask Michael to ask you guys a question, so it’s up to me this time. Let’s have fun…

What movie(s) do you never get tired of watching?


Answer in the comments section before September 6th, and I’ll pick one of your answers at random to win a DVD or digital download of Michael’s A Short History of Decay. I’m looking forward to seeing your answers; I love when people get passionate about movies.


Also, as of the writing of this interview, Michael’s Indiegogo project has almost reached the halfway mark. It expires September 14th. Please consider donating if you can. And even if you can’t, go watch Michael talk about why he’s making the movie. It’s an “artist takes his art by the horns” story (or, you know, something like that).


*************** UPDATE ***************

Congratulations to Odette Vega who won a copy of Michael’s movie, A Short History of Decay!

*************** UPDATE ***************


  1. Ann Marie Gamble (@amgamble) on August 30, 2012 at 6:47 am

    I don’t know if “I never get tired of it” is quite the description, but the one we watched over and over when my kids were little was “Mulan.” So many things: watching them respond to it and the movie itself. To treat the history and mythology of China as base, canonical knowledge. What are the values of your culture and where do you fit. That being a boy or a girl is just the clothes you put on. How do you define success and failure/what’s the mission of the project. And it’s got to be one of the densest? tightest? scripts ever written–every single word comes back around, is either foreshadowing or backshadowing, even a lot of the song lyrics.

  2. j on August 30, 2012 at 8:50 am

    I was recently talking to my sons about the movies I’ve seen more times than any human should ever watch a movie because when they were little, they could not get enough of them. Seriously, I think I watched Aladdin every day for a year! Now the boy who watch Aladdin all the time is making his own movies. Time flies.

  3. Nicci on August 30, 2012 at 8:59 am

    As I’m writing this my husband is up north helping his father–who is in his 70s and recently divorced–get re-situated; his ex-stepmother cope; and soon will be helping his retired mother & stepfather move home. I’m looking forward to watching Michael’s movie. Hopefully, it will make the circuit up my way. Funny you should bring up movies that we never tire of. I’ve so many, but I just watched one last night.

    “The Air I Breathe”

    I’m a little bit obsessed with chaos theory, butterfly effect, space & time continuum, future-seers, and the cause & effect of the interconnectedness of it all. Watched “The Air I Breathe” again last night. I fall a little bit more in love with it every time I see it. It’s hard to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar and not picture her kicking vampire butt, but she was pretty good in this. Brendan Fraser just works well as the dough-eyed, future-seeing thug. I wish he would just kick it up a notch with more complex roles instead of portraying lovable, huggable guys. I mean, have you seen him in “The Quiet American” and “Gods and Monsters”? And of course, Kevin Bacon is always a sixth-degree away from everything. Oh, yeah, and did I mention: Forrest Whitaker & Andy Garcia?

    I enjoy little-known movies that inspire to be more but never does because its essence is better than that of a blockbuster hit. Good acting, good direction, thoughtful reflection, and badass characters always does it for me.

    Pleasure: There are some people that believe in coincidences. I am not one of them.

    • j on August 30, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Wow, that was quite a write-up. I’ve never heard of “The Air I Breathe” but I totally have to watch it now. And this: “Good acting, good direction, thoughtful reflection, and badass characters always does it for me” might be my favorite description of a good movie ever.

      I totally agree with you on Brandon Fraser (who I thought was good in “Crash” too though he didn’t have much to do). And Kevin Bacon… if I’d ever doubted him, I was convinced of his talent in “Mystic River.”

  4. Pam on August 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Movies I never get tired of watching is a pretty long list. I’ll go with the first ones that come to mind: Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Notorious, the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, The Maltese Falcon, The Gay Divorcee, Jaws, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sense and Sensibility, Volver. (Etc. –Imagine a list in ever tinier print, going on to the horizon.)

    • j on August 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      I’m totally imagining that. Starwars style. 🙂

      I’ve never seen Volver or The Gay Divorcee. Think I’ll make a list of everyone’s favorites I haven’t seen. (If there are lots of them, I could turn this into a really fun 30-day challenge!)

    • Pam on August 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      The Gay Divorcee is one of those movies I quote at random moments. (Trust your wife to Tonetti; he prefers spaghetti.) Edward Everett Horton! Eric Blore! (Rogers and Astaire!) Love it.

      Volver is one of those movies that just hook me in.

    • j on August 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      They are on the list, baby. (I think it’s a huge compliment to you that I never know when you’re quoting things or just, you know, letting random thoughts find your voice.) xo

    • miguel on September 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      I would like to watch Volver with both of you!

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      Oh, let’s make a date!

  5. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on August 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Love this interview! One of my faves so far. Michael’s answer to that first question is truly inspiring. Very fun to read.

    And as to a movie I never tire of… The Princess Bride. I own it on VHS and DVD, and could probably quote it from beginning to end without it even being on (although I’ve never tried it). I just can’t get enough. =)

    • j on August 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      First, me too! I LOVE that answer. How cool (even if delusional) to define distraction and “waste of time” out of existence. And I especially like that because I think writers (probably all creatives) are working all the time, even when they don’t know they are.

      Second, me too! You would have loved this. Over the summer, our indie theater downtown shows classic movies a couple of times a month. One of them was Princess Bride thisyear, and The Boy and I went. It gave me chills to have an entire room full of people say, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” SO COOL.

  6. Patricia MacDonald on August 31, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Wow… first, thank you for turning me on to Michael Maren. I’ve read a number of pages of his book ‘A Road To Hell’ on Amazon ( It is astounding in it’s clarity of what occurs with and by all of Western “civilization’s” aid to “less advantaged” countries. It is truly a road to hell and we need to seriously consider redefining what civilization really means.

    I have to tell you, at first I wasn’t interested in winning a copy of his movie. I don’t watch TV much and haven’t been to a movie theater in years. However now that I’ve read the small part of his book I have, I am suddenly intensely interested in seeing his film!

    One movie I’ve watched numerous times and still love is Men With Guns. It is interesting in that it also, as with the book above, blows open the mythology that everyone should have more. For sheer joy, yes, Princess Bride. I have to say though that my #1 fav movie of all time that I’ve watched so many times I’ve gone through numerous CDs and 2 DVDs of is Powwow Highway. It subtly and wackily (oh look, I made a new word!) displays our culture with it’s nuances and our foibles under colonialism in a laugh out loud way. Coming in at a close second is Dead Man, with Johnny Depp and Nobody, a darker version of Powwow Highway.

    • j on August 31, 2012 at 3:06 pm

      I’ve never seen any of the movies on your list! Powwow Highway sounds great, but I’m writing all four down.

      And you’re welcome for turning you onto Michael. I love that his movie alone is what grabbed me; I knew I wanted to see it. But his book pulled you to the movie. It’s something I have to remind myself all the time. All we can do is make the art. What happens after that, who loves it and who doesn’t, isn’t something the artist can control.

  7. Christie on August 31, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Okay so I loved The Air I Breathe, not sure I could watch it over and over again and of course The Princess Bride, now that is a movie I could watch and never get tired of, along with The Wizard of Oz. There are a few others though I could add to the list: Once, August Rush, A Star is Born (Barbra Streisand), Phenomenon, P.S. I Love you.

    I love “All we can do is make the art. What happens after that, who loves it and who doesn’t, isn’t something the artist can control.” Well said, couldn’t agree more :^)

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      I’ve never seen August Rush or P.S. I love you, so they’re on the list. This list of To Be Watched is a sweet unintended consequence of this interview!

  8. Michael on August 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    (Know what I hate? I hate feeling like I have to make a special trip to visit my favorite blog(er) and carve out the time it takes to read, think, and comment. Anyway, it’s nice to be here. I miss you Judy.)

    Mr. Maren sounds like he’s creating a film I’d love and appreciate, and it’s a topic that more and more of us will unfortunately identify with as the years move forward. That’s the world we’ve created. I’ll look forward to finding it when it comes out, however I have to.

    As for movies, gee… Choosing one is simply impossible, and I couldn’t possibly list fewer than three: Blade Runner, Til Human Voices Wake Us, and Stay.

    Blade Runner is just classic movie making, full of action, complex villains, and a hero that is accidentally trying to find a way to be a good guy in a world that refuses to let him. I like that theme. It’s also visually stunning and possibly the last great special effects movie that used absolutely zero cgi.

    Stay and Til Human Voices… are both just amazing movies with incredible dialogue, performances that are all about everything great acting should be, and breathtaking cinematography. Til Human Voices… is an obscure Aussie film starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter. It’s sort of a haunted love story. Stay stars Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, and Ryan Gosling, is easier to find. Everyone’s seen Blade Runner, but I’d so highly recommend the other two. Please, go out of your way if you haven’t seen them.

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      Yeah, I hate that too, but here you are!

      I think Michael Maren’s movie will speak to a LOT of people, for a lot of different reasons, but yeah. ALZ especially.

      I’ve never been able to find Til Human Voices… well, not in any of the easy, inexpensive ways I have to get movies. But I’m still trying. I added Stay to my list, because I’ve never seen that one. I recently watched DRIVE, with Hey-Girl-Ryan-Gosling, and I was pretty disappointed. Maybe I can find STAY and have him redeem himself.

  9. j on September 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Okay, on the list of movies you guys love that I’ve never seen (and sometimes never even heard of)…

    The Air I Breathe
    Powwow Highway
    Dead Man

    (Those three are on Netflix – yay!)

    The Gay Divorcee
    Men With Guns
    August Rush
    P.S. I love you
    Till Human Voices

    I’m going to try to watch them all because it’s significant, I think, when you’re willing to watch and rewatch a movie. That’s a different recommendation than just, “I love it.”

  10. Kate P on September 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    I could talk about several I watch over and over, but we were just quoting MOONSTRUCK on Twitter today, so that’s my pick. It’s smart, well-acted, and of course sweet, sad, and funny at the same time. Some parts explain my (mostly Italian) family very well.

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      It’s been way too long since I’ve seen Moonstruck. I love all the performances but Olympia Dukakis totally stole my heart.

  11. miguel on September 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I love Kieslowski’s Blue White Red set of films, but the one I seem to enjoy re-watching the most is Blue.

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      I’m embarrassed to admit that I had to look them up. Two of the three scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Holy cow! Must see.

  12. Annette A on September 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I just watched Dirty Dancing yesterday for the 20th time. I just love the setting. I realized that “Robbie the waiter” was clearly the inspiration for VP hopeful Paul Ryan’s Senator persona.
    Other fun films I can’t resist are:
    It’s Complicated
    Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
    Anything with Professor Snape
    Step Brothers
    Hocus Pocus (at Halloweentime)
    Pirates of the Caribbean

    I was tempted to erase and rewrite a more grown up list but hey, this is what I like when I’m veggin’ out!

    And my newest favorite Cowboys and Aliens! what?

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      Ha! I’ll rewatch Dirty Dancing now just to see Robbie the waiter inspirational performance!

      Love your list, except for Step Brothers, which now goes on my list of movies to see. I’ll report back.

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      p.s. I quote Jaws like a crazy person. 😉

  13. Gerry on September 1, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Okay…I’m the “elderly” one here, & my movie I never tire of watching will definitely prove that ; ) “Gone With The Wind” is my all time fav…read the book & watched the movie more times than I can remember; however, I might add, in defense of “my age”, the book AND the movie both came into being before I did (before I was born) ; )

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm

      Laughing! You’re a youngin’! I remember years ago, we rented Seven (which is maybe as far from Gone With The Wind as you can get), but when we got home, Gone With The Wind was in the box. Totally changed the tone of the night! 🙂

  14. Dave B. (@BuckyKatt) on September 1, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Funny, I was also going to mention Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy. Though “Red” is the one I like to watch the most. Another movie I can watch over and over is “Chariots of Fire”– it’s inspiring, and also I’m a runner and love the Olympics.

    • j on September 1, 2012 at 6:25 pm

      That’s funny. Blue (Miguel’s favorite) and Red (yours) are the ones that scored 100%. White scored a measly 91%.

      I’ve only seen Chariots of Fire once. I better rectify that.

  15. Becky on September 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Okay, so I looked at the site for the movie… sounds great. I think it said it was more about Alzheimer’s but, I’m betting I can relate. Taking care of my dad when he had cancer then immediately taking care of my mom when she was diagnosed is a blur at times. I was completely numb during that time, survival instinct I suppose. It was like having an infant — nighttime feedings, midnight trips to the bathroom, bathing, dressing, feeding, constant doctor visits… I’m rambling. Anyway… I think the movie will be a nice connectivity.

    Movies I can’t not watch:

    The obvious —
    The Wizard of Oz
    Miracle on 34th Street
    It’s A Wondeful Life
    The Sound of Music

    The ones I watch with or without the kids around —
    Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
    Nanny McPhee (this is my 5 star favorite)

    The ones I can’t stop laughing at —
    40 Year Old Virgin
    The Hangover
    Fast Times At Ridgemont High

    When I need a cry —

    My embarrassing guilty pleasure —
    Legally Blonde

    I’d say looking at the others here, I’m a bit of the immature movie type. I use to wish I was one of those cool people that watched foreign films and cared about Quentin Tarantino, but I will take the unbelievably amazing transformative story of Nanny McPhee anytime.

    • j on September 2, 2012 at 9:46 am

      While ALZ has its own specific flavor of heartbreak, I think caring for the ones who raised us is always a little bit unnerving, a little bit strange (and painful and terrifying). So, yes, I think Michael’s movie will speak to many people who have been in that position.

      Your movie comment made me laugh. By your definition, I guess I’m cool, but when I talk about what I’ve seen and what I have no interest in seeing, I think I’m often perceived as pretentious or snobby. Really though, we should love and watch (and re-watch) whatever we want, and screw what anybody thinks of our choices. *pumps fist for Nanny McPhee* #whichihaventseen

  16. Odette Vega on September 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    I’m going to be bold here and just list one movie that I’m completely 100% sure that I would never get tired of watching. If this movie was somehow on repeat on every channel of my television, I would never try to fix it or turn it off. When I mention this movie to someone and if they have never seen it, I either let them borrow it or make endless points on reasons why it’s a must see. I’m talking about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, my go to movie for any occasion. Even though it was release 28 years before I was born and I speak french like a toddler, I could watch this film any day.

    • j on September 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

      Wow! That is a ringing endorsement. I just looked it up and found it’s part of a “loose romantic trilogy.”

      I haven’t ever seen it or heard of it, so it’s going on the list! Thank you!

  17. Becky on September 2, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Colin Firth
    I’m assumIng that’s all I need to say regarding Nanny McPhee.

  18. Michael Maren on September 3, 2012 at 5:34 am

    Judy, Thanks for prompting me with these some thoughtful questions. (Maybe not so the last one.) And thanks to everyone who chimed in with comments. I’m heading to Wilmington, NC to start pre-production on A Short History of Decay tomorrow. Check out our facebook page to follow the production saga:

    And now for my list of movies I never get tired of watching:
    Sunset Boulevard – William Holden stars in Billy Wilder’s best film.
    Brazil – The full genius of Terry Gilliam
    Once Upon A Time in the West – Sergio Leone turns Henry Fonda evil
    Rosemary’s Baby – Mia Farrow via Roman Polanski
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Milos Forman does Ken Kesey
    The Big Lebowski – Just love the Coen Brothers (Fargo, too)
    Dr. Strangelove – or almost any Stanley Kubrick film.

    I could go on….. but that’s enough for now.

    • j on September 3, 2012 at 7:34 am

      You have been liked. (Officially. On Facebook. Where it matters.)

      And how could you have been the first person to write The Big Lebowski! Shut the fuck up, Donny! I love Fargo too. I’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard or Once Upon a Time in the West. They’re on the list.

      Thank you for doing the interview. Looking forward to updates from NC!

  19. Becky on September 6, 2012 at 8:13 am

    *whispering* who won?

    • j on September 6, 2012 at 8:31 am

      Announcement coming. I had to let the winner know first. Up by the end of today.

    • Becky on September 6, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Well shoot.
      I’m so not cut out for competition. I’ll stick with tennis… and darts… and cup stacking.

    • j on September 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      It’s not really a competition since the winner is chosen randomly. It’s more like tossing a penny into a well. 😉

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